In the last few days, several people have independently asked me to summarize my “The Curse of the Voynich” Voynich Manuscript theory (that it is an enciphered copy of Antonio Averlino [Filarete]’s lost books of secrets). Good theories generally improve when you retell them a few times: for example, back when I was first pitching my new type of security camera [i.e. my day job], it would take me about an hour to explain how it worked, but now it takes me about a minute. So… can I condense 230 pages from 2006 into a thousand words in 2010? Here goes…

The first part of my art history argument places the VMs in Milan after 1456 but before about 1480, and with some kind of architectural link to Venice:-

  • “Voynichese” uses a “4o” verbose cipher pair (but not as Arabic digit pairs, i.e not 10/20/30/40). This appears in North Italian / Milanese ciphers dating from 1440 to 1456 and is linked with the Sforzas, yet here forms part of a more sophisticated cipher system. This points to a post-1456 dating, locates it in Northern Italy (specifically Milan), and links it somehow with the Sforza court.
  • One of the rosettes in the nine-rosette page contains a castle with swallow-tail merlons and circular city walls. However, the only towns traditionally depicted with circular walls are Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Milan, of which Milan is the only one in Italy. Therefore, I conclude that this is probably Milan.
  • Also, the Sforza castle in Milan only had swallow-tail merlons after 1450. This gives a probable earliest date & place for the VMs of (say) 1451 in Milan.
  • Late in the 15th century, swallow-tail merlons were covered over to protect the defenders from flaming projectiles. This gives a probable latest date for the VMs of 1480-1500.
  • I argue that the central rosette shows a (slightly scrambled) view of St Mark’s Basilica as viewed from the Campanile beside it, linking the author of the VMs with Venice.

The second part highlights (what I consider to be) very close parallels between the VMs and the “little works” of secrets mentioned by Antonio Averlino in the later phases of his libro architettonico (but which have been presumed lost or imaginary), and which he compiled between 1455 and 1465.

  • The subjects of Averlino’s lost little books were: water (spas), agriculture, engines, recipes, glass-making, and bees.
  • I think Quire 13 depicts water – both spas and plumbing machinery / engines
  • I think that Herbal A pages are agriculture (grafting, herbiculture, etc)
  • I think that Herbal B pages contain engines (but visually enciphered to resemble strange plants). I also suspect that Averlino was the author of the lost mid-Quattrocento “Machinery Complex” manuscript postulated by Prager and Scaglia.
  • I think f86v3 specifically depicts bees (Curse pp.138-140)
  • After publishing my book, I discovered that Averlino did indeed have his own herbal, written “elegantly in the vernacular tongue

The third part outlines what I suspect was Averlino’s opportunity and motive for creating the VMs, based on well-documented historical sources (plus a few specific inferences):-

  • Antonio Averlino was interested in cryptography, specifically in transposition ciphers. His libro architettonico partly fictionalizes himself and many of the people around the Sforza by syllable-reversing their names – for example, his own name becomes “Onitoan Nolivera“.
  • Averlino was friends with the powerful cryptographer Cicco Simonetta, who ran the Sforza Chancellery: when Averlino suddenly left Milan in 1465, he left his affairs and claims for back pay in Simonetta’s hands.
  • Disenchanted by his experience of working for Francesco Sforza, Averlino planned to travel from Milan across Europe to work in the new Turkish court in Istanbul – his friend Filelfo drafted a letter of introduction for him.
  • I infer (from the peculiarly intentional damage done to the signature panel of his famous doors in Rome) that Averlino travelled to Rome in the Autumn of 1465, perhaps even with the party travelling from Brescia with what is now known as MS Vat Gr 1291.
  • I also infer (from a close reading of Leon Battista Alberti’s small book on ciphers) that an unnamed expert in transposition ciphers debated cryptography practice in detail with Alberti in late 1465, and I suspect that this expert was Averlino, who would surely have sought out his fellow Florentine humanist architect while in Rome.
  • Some art historians have put forward particular evidence that suggests Averlino did indeed travel to Istanbul around this time to work on some buildings there.
  • However, this happened not long after the notorious incident when Sigismondo Malatesta’s favourite painter Matteo de’ Pasti was arrested in the Venetian-owned port of Candia in Crete. His crime was attempting to take a copy of Roberto Valturio’s book on war machines “De Re Militari” to the Turks, punished by being hauled back in chains to Venice for interrogation by the Council of Ten.
  • Though not always 100% reliable, Giorgio Vasari asserts that Antonio Averlino died in Rome in 1469: so there is good reason to conclude that if Averlino did indeed travel East, he (like his old friend George of Trebizond) probably travelled back to Italy before very long.
  • Overall, my claim is that if Averlino made (or tried to make) the dangerous trip East in 1465 and wanted to take his books of secrets (which, remember, contained drawings of engines just like “De Re Militari”) along with him, he would need to devise a daring way of hiding them in plain sight. But how?

The fourth part of my argument describes how I think Averlino trickily enciphered his books of secrets to make them seem to be sections of a medieval herbal / antidotary written in a lost language. However, given that this section is extraordinarily complicated and I’m rapidly closing in on my thousand-word limit, I’ll have to call a halt at this point. 🙂

Three years after committing all this to print, I still stand by (pretty much) every word. Obviously, it’s a tad annoying that the recent radiocarbon dating doesn’t fit this narative perfectly: but historical research (when you do it properly) is always full of surprises, right? We’ll have to see what the next few months bring…

41 thoughts on ““Voynich Averlino hypothesis” summary…

  1. That’s a very concise summary, but I don’t think it does the book any justice at all. Any serious VMS researcher should just get The Curse. Also, you’re missing out on having your name anagrammed! How many people can claim to have had their name anagrammed by a British programmer/security expert/hobby cryptologist?

  2. @Christopher: Thanks for your generous comments! As much as I agree that “The Curse” is a must-buy for anyone with an interest in the Voynich 🙂 , I thought something a little more substantial than the slightly tart 147-word precis of it in the Wikipedia VMs page needed to be out there.

    (What Christopher is referring to is that if you buy “The Curse” direct from my Compelling Press website, I’m happy to add a dedication to the front page of your copy with an anagram of your name. It’s fun, so why not?)

  3. Diane O'Donovan on March 9, 2012 at 12:50 am said:

    Just a note of another image of swallowtail merlons, interesting because supposed painted by Giotto, and dated to the 1290s.
    In the basilica of S.Francis, Assisi, it’s a fresco showing said founder of the Franciscans expelling demons from the city of Arezzo. city is drawn in the usual crowded-perspective of Byzantine works etc. city gates have gothic arches and square portals. Demons in process of expulsion are nicely bat-winged. 🙂

  4. Diane O'Donovan on March 9, 2012 at 12:52 am said:

    PS I’m asking for a copy of your book as most-wanted present for ma’s day. (These invented festivals have their positive side).

  5. Pingback: Whose theory is this? Match author and idea. | Voynich trivia

  6. I’ll be writing up a post soon which mentions a paper by Wenzel. In it is also discussion and illustration of certain forms of dance motif – not the usual dance of death but more like the one by Averlino on St.Peter’s. (Curse p.74).

    It could be another point of intersection – maybe.
    If you feel interested in the paper but have any difficulty finding it, pls feel free to say.
    Marian Wenzel, ‘The Dioscuri in the Balkans’, Slavic Review, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Sep., 1967), pp. 363-381.
    [JSTOR]

    quote:
    It consists basically of a row of dancing figures with joined hands,and is subject to certain variations. For example, the leader of the dance often carries a sword … and the dancers sometimes hold flowers or bunches of vegetation in their linked hand. (p.364). A series of illustrations from tombs in the Danube region, all dated to the 15thC as her Fig.3 (a-c).
    Difference is that while end-figures are always male, in those funerary images, the central string includes females.

    Cheers

  7. to clarify the ‘it also contains… ‘ is not my post, but Wenzel’s paper.

    I have no occasion to mention the dance motif.

  8. carbon dating only dates when the plants sucked in C from the air. if the author was only alive later, then that is it .I read in the last few hours that some of the plants are real and are of American plants. Carbon Dating can send Columbus back in time..

    Seems that other topics could be addressed as to the author’s date and place.. Eg the astronomy and astrology could be dated and placed. It all seems to fit toward an Italian. BUT you also need to explain the odd features of the cipher text. Do we just ignore triplicated words ? How do you prove the cipher is sophisticated, if you already agree that a pseudo-random allocation system could produce the cipher text ? Isnt that a SIMPLE system not sophisticated ? What is wrong with the confidence trickster theory ? that the person who authored this book required it to support a confidence trick, eg to test the honesty of someone (give them this book as a test ? ) , to sell the book for its face value, Or to sell himself as one person who can read its contents, (eg as a sage ..to keep his job as a royal/rich persons advisor… ). I just can’t see any very valid proof the text is sensible, but lots to say its not sensible eg the inconsistent frequencies across pages, its just too wild .. no page matches another.

  9. I’m a graduate student in architectural history working on Filarete’s Libro. I find the argument, in its condensed form, interesting enough to buy the book, for whatever that’s worth. Certainly lots of the pieces seem to fit if Filarete is at the center of your story.

    In any case, I’m not sure if you know, but Filarete’s Libro is available online (actually, it’s Finoli and Grassi’s 1972 redaction) in searchable digital form.

    http://fonti-sa.sns.it/TOCFilareteTrattatoDiArchitettura.php

    Finoli and Grassi’s edits, though apparently superficial, might render the text less useful for you. Of course, they’re working from a scribal copy in any case, so the spelling and spacing are suspect. Still, possibly useful.

    Cheers!

    -Jonathan

  10. I think, this awesome book written by Leone Battista Alberti

  11. Pingback: Il manoscritto Voynich: bufala d'epoca, codice alchemico o testo del Nuovo Mondo? | La Storia Viva

  12. Tricia on July 13, 2015 at 9:36 am said:

    Three crowns?
    “Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Milan”

  13. Tricia: now you’re just going round in circles. 😉

  14. Nick,
    Just updating – ‘Curse’ is now ten years old. Have the intervening years turned up anything which securely ties Averlino to Beinecke MS 408?
    Also, at one stage you were thinking of bringing out a second volume of your ideas about the manuscript. If you’ve abandoned the idea of publication, could we see a summary of ways in which your original ideas have altered in the light of subsequent studies – your own, I mean.

    Thank you.

  15. Diane: because I mined the literature on Averlino / Filarete so thoroughly in 2006, I’m not surprised that little has turned up since. However, I did subsequently discover that Averlino did have his own ‘elegant herbal, written in the vulgar tongue’, which is something that hardly does my hypothesis any harm.

    I continue to research, though, and am currently working on a paper for Cryptologia early next year.

  16. Mark Knowles on June 9, 2017 at 6:07 pm said:

    I thought this would be the best place to put my critique, so I thought I could respond to your summary. I will go through it part by part.

    First Part

    You say: “The first part of my art history argument places the VMs in Milan after 1456, but before about 1480, and with some kind of architectural link to Venice”

    The fact that you can no longer really argue against a much earlier dating of the Voynich well before 1456 is significant especially given the Carbon Dating results which I will discuss later.

    You say: “I argue that the central rosette shows a (slightly scrambled) view of St Mark’s Basilica as viewed from the Campanile beside it, linking the author of the VMs with Venice.”

    Art history narrative proof structure or not I think it is still very hard to justify the Central Rosette St. Marks identification whichever methodology you apply.

    So you might want to reduce your statement to: “The first part of my art history argument places the VMs in Milan before about 1480” This is certainly something I am happy with.

    I would say don’t be annoyed by my critique I still am inclined towards the view that you are the best Voynich researcher out there; an indication of which you can see that I am actually engaging very seriously with your arguments whereas most others I would not even bother to.

    More to follow…

  17. Mark Knowles on June 9, 2017 at 7:31 pm said:

    Second Part

    It seems to me that most if not all of the themes of Averlino Lost Little Books are fairly commonplace and so this does not instantly lead one to think that they must be the Voynich.

    You say: “I also suspect that Averlino was the author of the lost mid-Quattrocento ‘Machinery Complex’ manuscript postulated by Prager and Scaglia.”, but as you say you suspect this.

    More to Come…

  18. Mark Knowles on June 10, 2017 at 5:05 pm said:

    Third Part

    Here we get to a great story well written, but if feels more like fiction than reality. I worry that you felt that you needed to have a protagonist to make for a good story for “The Curse” and so settled with Averlino.

    In fairness I think his interest in ciphers counts for something and his connections to Simonetta are significant

    It is worth noting that in the case of the individual, I suspect to be the author, after identifying him as my candidate I only subsequently discovered very close family links to ciphers in the Milanese government and also to Cicco Simonetta. Though I wonder to what extent Simonetta was the originator of cipher techniques and to what extent he was the communicator or cipher techniques he had already learnt.

    I do think overall there is probably too much “suspecting” on your part.

  19. Mark Knowles on June 11, 2017 at 9:57 am said:

    Fourth Part

    You don’t successfully decipher the manuscript

    Conclusion

    A difference of at least 20 years in the Carbon Dating is concerning and unless you are in the “old parchment” camp in which case Wilfred Voynich could have written it, I think you can’t make the data fit that conclusion.

    I think knowing the chronology of your thought and development of your ideas would be really useful as clearly the Curse is written on the basis of an end conclusion not a process of discovery.

    In conclusion, in my opinion, is it possible that Averlino is the author of the Voynich?

    Yes, absolutely. In fact I think it is more likely that he is the author than any other candidate proposed, excluding of course, from my perspective, my own.

    How likely do I think it is that is the author? Well, there are certainly details which could point to him though I don’t think nearly as many details as you think. The dating presents problems, but maybe not insurmountable

    Do I have my own bias, because it sounds like too much of an exciting story?

    Yes. However, I am inclined to the view that you did some really good research, but got knocked off course by Averlino and his exciting journey eastwards.

    I hope my criticism does not come across as overly harsh. I think you would benefit by exploring options other than Averlino. That is not to say you should explore my line of thought, though I would be very happy if you did as I have a lot to do and not so much time to do it in, but rather you should explore a variety of other lines of thought. I feel the Voynich community would benefit from you using your “big brain” in other possible directions as well.

  20. Mark Knowles on June 11, 2017 at 10:11 am said:

    Nick: I think should add it is very difficult to be objective and fair, though I do try. I think my reaction in the end is probably more instinctive than objective, which I agree can be problematic. I do rather have a bias against the character of a famous person and a thrilling story, which in this instance feel rather contrived.

    I guess now I should really focus on my research rather than trying to knock holes in yours though they are not mutually exclusive; certainly as far as your “First Part” goes your points do go against my own which was my primary motivation for this argument.

  21. Mark Knowles on November 1, 2017 at 9:15 am said:

    Nick: You say

    “Voynichese” uses a “4o” verbose cipher pair and this appears in North Italian / Milanese ciphers dating from 1440 to 1456.

    Elsewhere you mention that the 4o symbol is used in ciphers dating from 1424 and 1435. Do you mean that in these earlier cases 4o is not used as a verbose cipher pair whereas later it is used in this way and that in the Voynich it clearly represents a verbose cipher pair? If so how do you know that 4o corresponds to a verbose cipher in the Voynich.

    In short does this not further support the idea that the Voynich may date from the early 15th century?

  22. Mark: in a good number of mid-15th century ciphers, the ‘4o’ pair is specifically used to encipher a single plaintext letter or token. In the 1435 Modena cipher (Meister 1902 p.35), 4 = Q, 4o = Qua. (I don’t count the Ebende Mappe II Nr 2 cipher on p.36 (4 = ‘n’, 4o = ‘cc’) because it is a number-based system.) The 1424 Cifra di Galiotto Fibindacci da Ricasoli (p.50), there is no 4, but 4o = ‘q’.

    In Curse, I listed the 1440 Leonello d’Este cipher (4 = [Null], 4o = ‘quo’), the 1450 Tristano Sforza cipher (4 = ‘c’, 4o = ‘s’), a 1455 Orfeo da Ricavo cipher (4 = ‘b’, 4o = ‘u’), and a 1456 Nicolao Maoeleone Ferrarien cipher (4 = ‘a’, 4o = ‘i’).

    It should therefore be utterly unsurprising if the extraordinarily stereotyped 4o- word-initial pair we see in the Voynich Manuscript were to turn out to be a early-to-mid-fifteenth century (i.e. 1424-1456) verbose pair, just like all the others.

  23. Mark Knowles on November 1, 2017 at 10:50 am said:

    Nick: I absolutely agree. Of course one may in the future also find examples from before 1424.

    As one avenue that I am exploring, I intend to carefully investigate Milanese enciphered correspondence in the reign of Filippo Maria Visconti and possibly earlier held in different archives.

  24. bdid1dr on November 1, 2017 at 2:32 pm said:

    Ah ! 4o vadis !

    bd

  25. 4c = que or exe 4o ” qua or exa
    4o4o+o89 = exquisitum
    a sharp 4 = qu, a round = ex
    🙂

  26. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on November 2, 2017 at 9:07 pm said:

    Hello Nick.
    Do you need help with voynich ? You ve lost in Italy. I will show you the light. And I’ll lead you the right way.
    I’ll show you an important part of the key. 🙂

  27. Mark Knowles on November 3, 2017 at 11:11 am said:

    Nick: Please don’t think I am trying to undermine your ideas; it is really that I am trying to illustrate the idea that an earlier date than you suggest for the Voynich is perfectly valid and given the carbon dating is more probable. I would say there is a case for switching one’s focus from late 15th century Milan to the early 15th century Milan; from the Milan of the Sforza to the Milan of the Visconti. Whilst as we know there is plenty of records for Sforza Milan, but few for Visconti Milan due to the destruction of the Milanese records it seems the main ways to fill this gap is using diplomatic correspondence between Milan and other city states stored in their archives. Unfortunately reconstructing Milanese correspondence from the many other archives is, I fear, a highly laborious task; though it does appear that some of this work has been already done.

  28. Mark: it’s just a joke, please don’t read anything into it. 🙂

  29. Mark Knowles on November 3, 2017 at 12:26 pm said:

    Nick: I am sorry. Unfortunately I have a poor sense of humour. On the subject of humour I must say that I do like your writing style; I really enjoy your Chandleresque metaphor and similes.

    As far as research goes I have found a lot to keep myself busy exploring all aspects of authorship and the Milanese government of Filippo Maria Visconti amongst other things. I have a great facility for piling more on my plate. I am certainly very far from exhausting all research angles; many of which I have just started on.

  30. Mark Knowles on December 9, 2017 at 5:46 pm said:

    Nick: Your identification of Milan to some extent underpins my map analysis, so I think it is important that I can justify this identification.

    As I mentioned I don’t see how we can confidently associate “4o” with Milan.

    I still don’t know quite what to make of the circular city identification. Obviously the fact that only half the city wall is drawn is slightly problematic. I suppose I will need to browse through medieval maps to see if in practice Milan, Baghdad and Jerusalem are really the only cities represented as circular.

    I am of course still very much attached to the Milan based identification. I have considered many other places in Northern Italy and elsewhere and none of them seem to fit my total map identification like Milan. I just wish I could put it on firmer foundations. I suppose this underscores the need for other additional geographical identifiers.

  31. Mark Knowles on December 10, 2017 at 5:28 am said:

    Nick: A little research indicates that many medieval cities had a circular layout, or as circular as Milan’s layout. So whilst it may be the case, I haven’t checked this, that Milan, Jerusalem and Baghdad were the only cities reputed to be circular, in practice they were not. So it would seem to me that the circular city argument is weak.

  32. Mark Knowles on December 10, 2017 at 5:36 am said:

    Nick: It does look like the Northern Italy argument looks strong and as far as cities go there are a relatively small number of plausible candidates, I think.

    From the point of view of my map analysis Milan seems to be a very neat fit, whilst the other Northern Italian cities don’t seem to fit at all. However I would really like to be able to justify the Milan identification without specific reference to my “map”.

  33. Mark Knowles on December 10, 2017 at 6:02 am said:

    Nick: I ought to stay that without your identification of Milan I may never have arrived at that identification myself and I would be still be floundering around looking for a suitable candidate without any luck.
    It is conceivable that without your work I might have eventually arrived at Milan, but that was far from where my thinking was at the time.
    I think one thing that came out of looking at the possibility of Milan was that the bodies of water on the “map” could represent lakes, that was revelatory.
    So whether my theory is right or wrong it likely wouldn’t have been formed without your work. It also is worth reiterating that your dating of the manuscript prior to the carbon dating was impressively accurate, though maybe not 100% spot on.

  34. Mark Knowles on December 11, 2017 at 9:56 am said:

    Nick: I think it is fair to say that given any date from 1426, at the latest, is feasible on the basis of the “4o” character appearance. And given that the case for Milan from your specific analysis is much shakery than I first thought. Then I think the identification of the author as Averlino becomes a pretty big leap. Nevertheless I still regard “the Curse” and your work as very much amongst the most significant. I have found your research an invaluable resource, both in “the Curse” and amongst your posts.

    One think that would have helped a lot for the researcher, though probably less entertaining for the ordinary reader, is if you had written the book from the perspective of the evolution of your thought rather than an end conclusion.

  35. Mark Knowles on December 11, 2017 at 12:31 pm said:

    Nick: I think every point in “the first part” apart from the one dating the manuscript before 1480, I haven’t analysed this point as from my perspective it is irrelevant, is flawed. This really undermines “the second part” as there is then no foundation to it. The carbon dating then becomes the coup de gras that completely undermines it.
    Rather than taking pleasure in this conclusion it actually annoys me as the identification of Milan is an important basis to my theory. My theory is not fundamentally dependent on your Milan identification, however it strengthens my arguments significantly.
    Anyway I daresay when I finally finish the development of my theory, who knows when that we be, and complete the writeup, depending on where I arrive, I am sure you will be well able to carry out the kind of blistering critique you are so adept at. If I succeed in validating my theory then obviously the situation will be different. If I fail to either because my theory is to some extent flawed or because it is correct, but I simply was unable to find the evidence that supports it then the state of affairs will be different.

  36. Mark: the significantly different thing about “Curse” is that it was an exploration of what it would imply if the Voynich Manuscript was (in some way) the same books of secrets Averlino mentioned many times in his book on architecture. Regardless of how strong you consider the 4o / circular Milan / etc evidence to ne, I know of no similar books of secrets from the fifteenth century: and so the art historical comparison with the VMs still stands.

  37. Mark Knowles on December 11, 2017 at 3:37 pm said:

    Nick: That’s an interesting point and one which is hard to challenge on the face of it and without deviating from my current line of research something I can’t easily explore. Nevertheless I take your point and it may well be a very good one.

    One thing I feel strongly about is that a theory doesn’t need to be correct for the research that it is based on to be of great value. Even if you are wrong about Averlino I don’t think it undermines the very valuable contribution you have made. Similarly for my own part even in the worst case scenario of most or even all of my analysis being incorrect I don’t think it follows that I have made a worthless contribution.

    Anyway rather than criticising your analysis, which was largely now done as it has been a basis for my research, I should now focus on following my own line of research.

  38. Mark,
    I found most helpful that part of the ‘Curse’ where Nick discussed palaeography and codicology.

    Nick knows I’d not give him a job valuing or provenancing pictures, but it’s not a job he’d want, anyway. 🙂

  39. Diane: I have more than enough jobs already. 😉

  40. Mark Knowles on December 12, 2017 at 4:09 pm said:

    Diane: I wasn’t doubting the overall value of “The Curse”. I was re-examining the identification of Milan that Nick makes as this is very relevant to my own research. Unfortunately, after doing so, I was dismayed to conclude that I felt in fact that the case Nick makes in the “first part” above was much weaker than I had believed. On examination of Nick’s argument for the dating I had previously concluded it was at best weak.
    However I have not examined in great detail Nick’s arguments why he believes Averlino stands out as the author, because that question is far less relevant to my own research and so I can’t justify putting much time into that endeavour.
    I do feel strongly that overall Nick’s work is very valuable and that we all have to be careful not to be too judgmental of other people’s theories, though of course accepting that it is true that there are some theories which add little value.

  41. Mark Knowles on December 12, 2017 at 6:41 pm said:

    A further thought on Milan. Milan could be justified in and of itself if the city plan distinctly resembled Milan. Certainly the castle located in the city wall, in the way that it is, may be distinctive. The issue with the identification of the church as San Gottardo is that I believe it is outside the city walls and not directly opposite the castle.
    However I am still working very much on the basis that the city is Milan, though I have to admit this clearly weakens rather than strengthens my argument. I should say that there are others ways to justify Milan. If the manuscript is associated with Northern Italy then there are a small number of cities that it can be and each of those can be examined on a case by case basis.
    In the context of my “map” analysis Milan, in my opinion, seems to fit very well whilst the other cities or locations I have considered seem to fit very poorly.

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